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Keeping the Home Fires Burning

February 13, 2010

February 13, 2010

Did you ever start something you just couldn’t stop? Have you found yourself fueled by some cocktail of determination, stubbornness and refusal to retreat? With Valentine’s Day in the forecast, thoughts of terribly captivating crushes from the past that I should have backed away from at the sight of those pesky red flags spring to mind. I was thinking of something more along the lines of hearth-warming than heart-warming, but if home is where the heart is, part of my heart is blazing with heat while other areas shudder with chill. Not to worry, most of those cold spots feature cozy down comforters.

I shut off the thermostats two Februarys ago and haven’t looked back, even on those windy nights with temps in the teens when the house just seems to seep its heat and refuses to be fully warmed. I still have to feed the oil tank with home heating oil or diesel, as the water heater is powered by the oil burner. While I do have a South-facing roof and would love to try solar hot water, that expenditure is not in the cards for us at the moment, so we pour fuel down the spout and try to conserve as much as possible.

Wind makes a marked difference in our ability to effectively heat the house, and it has been a very windy year. Generally, if the temperature outside remains above 30 degrees, the house is toasty. Temperatures above 20 degrees allow for a comfortable indoor environment with some cool spots near the doors, windows and outer rooms. Once temps slip below 20 degrees, some rooms become invigorating, as we New Englanders like to say about brisk conditions.

We are heating approximately 2,000 square feet with our Irish Waterford Ironfounders woodstove, which was a gift from a friend. The first floor of the house features a bedroom, bath and classroom, and the kitchen, dining area and living room are arranged in an open floor plan with a cathedral ceiling that allows heat to spread to the two bedrooms, bathroom and loft upstairs. A large central ceiling fan helps circulate and return some of the heat to the lower level. The coldest rooms are the first floor bedroom and bath, which are around a corner and down a hall away from the stove, which is located at the far end of the living room.

During one of those recent windy cold snaps, I noticed some pockets of cold in the morning and decided to take a few readings with the homebrew fermentation bucket thermometer (which measures the air temp around the beer bucket to explain why it is gurgling like a boiling broth or barely making a peep.) The temperature at the kitchen bay window was 40 degrees, which might explain why I can’t keep spoiled-rotten greenhouse-bred indoor plants alive over there. The headboard of the downstairs bed read 42 degrees, which partially explains why the 2-year-old demands my company. Those temperatures were recorded after cranking up the stove for three hours.

By contrast, the living room was 56 degrees, the loft was 58 degrees, and the upstairs bedrooms were both 55 degrees, toasty by our standards. Wait, what is “room temp” supposed to be, 68 degrees?! That sounds like a beach day to me, but that is how the human body adjusts to its environment. We heat the house all day, but at a reduced burn-rate. Spending plenty of time outside each day allows us to come in calibrated to the outdoor environment. We enter the house, sweat in the blast of 50 degree temps, and promptly strip off extra layers.

Adjusting to heating with only wood has not been difficult. Sure, there are mornings when socks are a must and exiting the shower can be, well, invigorating, but I’ve also noticed some unexpected benefits to the temperature differences in the home. Discovering that a bunch of people can snuggle under a down comforter and create enormous heat is a delightful and liberating experience. If it were very cold, a heavy wool cover would help trap that heat even more, but we haven’t ever been that cold. Overall, I think we’ve had some of the coziest winters I can remember.

Last month, our egg refrigerator in the garage suffered a meltdown, and I moved the eggs to the basement, which has consistently remained around 40 degrees. I left the oblong package wrapped in garbage bags in the freezer section of that fridge, thinking it was the leftover shiitake spawn and was unpleasantly surprised to find out that it was actually 25 lbs of squid from last summer. It must have been a premature senior moment, as the shiitake spawn was exactly where it should have been – in the fridge, not the freezer. But figuring out that the basement is a huge refrigerator was a lucky realization. Also, as the giant chest freezer is located in the basement, the cold environment means it does not have to run as often as it would if it were in a warmer room.

We haven’t bought any firewood yet. We rely on trees felled from our land and wood squirreled away from any and every tree-cutting in town that we can get in on. Last summer we rented a big splitter and put it to work over three days on about five cords of wood. After that adventure, someone indefinitely lent us a big splitter with a Honda engine, and we split the rest of what we had cut at the time.

We started the winter with six and a half cords – enough, I thought, to last two winters. I was basing that opinion on my experience growing up with a woodstove, when we would pretty reliably go through three cords a year. I conveniently forgot that we also had an oil burner that would send dusty hot air into the house at night. As of yesterday, we have burned three and three-quarters cords of wood. I think the two and three-quarters cords we have left should last for the rest of the season, and we may even have some leftovers for next year. No matter, we are rapidly stockpiling wood cut to four foot lengths for next season, and I have a more than a few invasives picked out for removal to create better light for the bees and gardens. I’m an experienced chain sharpener now, and we keep two Husqvarnas and a Homelite ready for the job.

Next year I will stack the oak separate from the maple, and the maple apart from the locust, which dominates our stack. When the forecast calls for very low temps with nasty winds, I want to be able to grab plenty of oak without having to deconstruct my tight stacks. The heat from an oak log is an incredible, exciting thing on a cold night. Heavy window covers are a must, if funds allow, and nasty drafts must be eliminated. I discovered why the side door is so awfully drafty, and it is an unfortunate oversight. Weather-stripping is essential. Harvesting and cutting and splitting and stacking and seasoning and lugging all our own heating fuel makes us appreciate it much more than we would if we simply wrote a check for it. But, oh, what a feeling it is to know that the heat we enjoy in the depths of winter was gathered by hand from the land we inhabit.

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